While students on Yale’s 35 athletic teams train to someday hoist an Ivy League championship trophy, another team of Yale students is using data and statistics to uncover new knowledge within the world of sports.
In fall 2015, Evan Green ’17 and Michael Menz ’17 decided to combine their love of sports with their shared interest in statistics, forming the Yale Undergraduate Sports Analytics Group. In its inaugural year, the group had six consistent members who met weekly to work on projects that analyzed specific aspects of professional sports teams and high-profile collegiate programs. But through word of mouth and recruiting efforts at the extracurricular bazaar last month, the group expanded to around 20 members this year and broadened its scope to include analyses of Ivy League sports.
Green, a Boston native who decided to found the club after seeing a similar group’s success at Harvard, said the Yale group’s meetings involve working on ongoing projects, watching games together and monitoring sports data. The team also attends a speaker series hosted by a similar group at the Yale School of Management called the Yale Sports Business, Law and Analytics Group.
Menz added that YUSAG has begun to host tutorials on sports analysis basics. The tutorials, like the weekly Tuesday meetings, are open to the student body.
“I think one thing that we’re trying to do more is to give people without a background in statistics an opportunity to learn more about programming and statistics,” Menz said. “It’s a tough thing to take a sports idea and make it mathematical.”
According to Menz, YUSAG is working on four major projects this semester. One is to analyze the win probability for each team over the course of a game in the National Basketball Association. The group uses live data to analyze situational play and to calculate how teams could change their strategies during a game instead of after it ends.
Another contingent of the group is analyzing the success of using timeouts in National Football League games. These members found that conventional timeout strategy used by NFL coaches is actually ineffective, and that teams do not have a good strategy to convene during a game.
A third project for the semester examines pitching strategy in Major League Baseball by calculating which pitches are most successful and which ones players are likely to throw in a given game scenario.
Although YUSAG initially analyzed professional sports, it has recently expanded its database to include Yale athletics and the Ivy League. YUSAG’s final project this semester will look at athletic recruitment statistics at Yale, particularly for the football team.
Members of the group are also involved in national projects and hackathons to keep up with the growing field of sports analytics. According to Green, YUSAG had two teams of members participate in the NBA Basketball Analytics Hackathon in New York in September.
Green said his and Menz’s goal is to hand off leadership of the group next semester and grow the group to 25 people, all of whom are actively participating in local projects and attending hackathons around the country.
Luke Benz ’19 is an applied mathematics major who joined YUSAG after the 2015 extracurricular bazaar. He said he originally heard of the sports analytics field from the movie “Moneyball,” but had never learned how to use mathematics to analyze sports.
“I’ve always been a sports fan and enjoyed math and I didn’t really know how to do it,” Benz said. “When I saw the club I was interested in combining the things I liked. I really enjoyed the people and what [they] were talking about.”
Benz said his favorite project with YUSAG so far used NBA data to cluster players according to a defined style of play instead of by their positions. He explained that in the NBA, everyone is given a position but two players with the same position might play very differently. With this in mind, the group categorized players by playing style and then calculated which teams did better based on combinations of these different styles.
Matthew Robinson ’18, a chemistry major, said that although he is not a mathematics major, his interests in STEM go hand in hand with his love of sports.
“Some of my research is actually in computational biology, and those skills are amenable to being useful in analyzing data that involves sports,” Robinson said. “Right now I’m just doing [sports analytics] for fun, [but] I’m learning a lot while doing it. I imagine the skills I am learning now will be useful for wherever I end up.”
The Harvard College Sports Analysis Collective was founded in 2006.